Emirati on a musical mission to bridge two distinct cultures

Emirati oud player Faisal Al Saari will perform with the Luzia von Wyl Ensemble, a classically influenced Swiss jazz-crossover group.
The oud is Faisal Al Saari’s first love. Courtesy Faisal Al Saari
The oud is Faisal Al Saari’s first love. Courtesy Faisal Al Saari

When Emirati musician Faisal Al Saari was invited to collaborate with the Luzia von Wyl Ensemble, a classically influenced Swiss jazz-crossover group, he didn’t have to think twice about it.

A celebrated oud player, Al Saari will join the 10-piece ensemble on the stage at Dubai’s Madinat Theatre on Saturday – their first live performance together.

“This concert will represent the collaboration between two countries,” says Al Saari. “We will try to exchange heritage and culture through music. When they asked me, I accepted it straight away – it’s something for my country and I like to do something for my country.”

As well as collaborating on von Wyl’s compositions – dense, knotty works that cross the lines between jazz and contemporary classical – Saturday’s performance will feature the world premiere of a group piece composed by Al Saari specifically for the event. Commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Festival, and part of Swiss Days 2016, the exchange will be reversed when the Emirati travels to perform with the ensemble in Zurich later this year.

Al Saari’s untitled piece was written to musically represent the UAE. However, in writing for a European ensemble, Al Saari was forced to purge his work of the predominant “quarter-tones” that lend Arabic music its distinctive flair, but are not traditionally played in western music.

“It’s a melody I wrote to reflect our local mood, but a melody that can be played on all instruments,” he says. “It’s a dialogue between them and me.”

For von Wyl, it was precisely these different musical languages – and technical challenges – that attracted her to the project. The pianist and bandleader made a name for herself by pushing the boundaries between genres and traditions, which was best shown on her 2014 debut album, Frost.

“My band and I have always taken the adventure to invite all types of guest musicians – or even writers, photographers or dancers – to create new sounds and new contexts for our music,” she says.

“Working with Faisal Al Saari is incredibly fascinating since he is used to completely different scales and rhythms than we are. Moreover, our ways to learn and rehearse music are not the same at all. It’s a very fertile combination, from which both sides can learn a lot.”

“The two cultures are very far apart, totally different,” says Al Saari. “But I believe that music is the world language. It’s the best way to connect with other people and cultures – you can say what you want to say to anybody with music.”

After three decades playing the oud, Al Saari, 42, well knows the value of music in his own life. The Abu Dhabi resident had trouble convincing his conservative parents that music was a worthy pursuit – the first three ouds he brought home when he was a teenager were destroyed for religious reasons. But undeterred, he carried on.

“I felt it was in my heart and I would not leave it,” he says, adding that now, his parents are proud of his achievements. “When they saw me on TV and in the newspaper, they said ‘well, you are great’. They’ve forgotten all about before.”

Such parental pride is certainly understandable. In 2011, Al Saari became the third pupil to graduate from Abu Dhabi’s Bait Al Oud – the global music school founded by renowned Iraqi virtuoso Naseer Shamma – where he been working as a teacher ever since.

A year later he was invited to perform at the Abu Dhabi Festival. Before that, in 2009, Al Saari won the Abu Dhabi Festival Award and the Admaf Creativity Award not as musician, but as a filmmaker for his short film Story of a Nation, which traced the UAE’s cultural roots from the 1930s to the present day.

But the oud remains his first love. “It’s not a normal instrument,” he says. “It’s not violin or a guitar – it’s in between. It can play anything, but it’s very hard to master – and it gives you a very nice feeling to try.”

• Luzia von Wyl Ensemble and Faisal Al Saari perform at Madinat Theatre, Souk Madinat Jumeirah, on Saturday, at 8.30pm. Tickets Dh50 from madinatjumeirah.etixdubai.com

rgarratt@thenational.ae

Published: February 3, 2016 04:00 AM

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